Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
A few years ago, when working at an elementary school, I attended a beginning-of-the-year faculty meeting. Most teachers are familiar with these meetings. Well-rested and enthusiastic teachers greet one another and share stories of summer adventures over coffee and pastries. The principal points out changes in school policies, and welcomes new faculty members. Typically, there’s an activity that helps set the tone for the arduous task ahead. At this particular meeting the principal asked us to focus on our first-day-of school activities, and develop ways to get all students involved in the classroom. We split into small groups and began sharing.
An enthusiastic upper-elementary teacher went first: “On the first day of school, we move the desks against the wall, and we all stand in a circle in the middle of the room. I do a quick dance move for the students, and all the students learn that move. Then we go around the circle and each student adds a move to the dance. Within a few minutes, we’ve created our own Class Dance! We do this dance every morning as a way to celebrate our class."
One veteran teacher asked, “Do all of the students participate?”
“Most of them do,” she replied. “Every year I have two or three real sticks-in-the-mud who won’t dance for us. Oh well. Their loss.”
“That would have been me,” I confessed. My table-mates glared incredulously. “I’d take the zero. That’s way out of my comfort zone.”
My guess is that those students standing in the corner could write down every dance move in that class. They could illustrate each dancer, scan the drawings into a computer, and make a great PowerPoint. The students who don’t want to dance (or sing, or do anything loud, really) are introverts. As an introvert myself, I can identify with those students. We are naturally observant. We’re not anti-social. We enjoy good fun. We simply don’t care for the spotlight.
In this posting, I’d love to share some of the challenges faced by introverts in the classroom. I’ll also share some ideas about making your classroom comfortable for all students. Maybe you’ve had similar experiences as a student or a teacher.
Understanding the Terms
An introvert isn’t someone who’s just quiet or shy. Sure, introverts can be quiet, and introverts can be shy. But that’s really not what it’s about.
Several books have been written about introversion and extroversion, and I won’t try to summarize them here. The Myers & Briggs Foundation has provided widely-accepted explanations of the two personality characteristics.
Here’s what an extrovert might say:
"I like getting my energy from active involvement in events and having a lot of different activities. I'm excited when I'm around people and I like to energize other people. I like moving into action and making things happen. I generally feel at home in the world. I often understand a problem better when I can talk out loud about it and hear what others have to say." (1)
An introvert might say this:
"I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I'll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing." (2)
So, it’s not really about loudness. It’s about focus. Are we focusing on the outside world, or on our inner thoughts and ideas? Of course, introversion and extroversion are best described as general tendencies on a continuum. While some people are extremely introverted and others are extremely extroverted, most personalities can be charted in a nebulous area on either side of the scale. And as we grow older, we learn to adapt to situations that are uncomfortable for us. I’m an introvert, but I can fake it when I need to.
Introversion is not Shyness
Before we move on, let’s understand that when discussing personality, shyness isn’t the same as introversion. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment. (3) Shy people are fearful that any outward display will receive negative feedback. Shyness is about fear, which can be reduced and even eliminated in some environments. Introversion is about preference, and we really can’t convince people that they prefer one thing when in fact they prefer another.
Realize, of course, that extroverted people can be very shy. Barbara Streisand, a gifted performer with an outgoing personality suffers from stage-fright (shyness.) And introversion and shyness don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who doesn’t have a problem with shyness, has an introverted personality. (4)
Those children in your class who aren’t outgoing and prefer quiet environments may not necessarily be shy. They’re not afraid of being criticized for their actions. Their only fear is that an authority figure (the teacher) will require, coerce or bully them into acting in a way that’s uncomfortable, or that they will be placed in an environment that overwhelms them. They want to succeed. They are introverts.
And there are more of them than you think. A conservative estimate puts the percentage at 25%. Forty to fifty percent is probably more accurate. Some introverted students are simply more skilled at adapting to the extroverted environment of the modern classroom.
Class Dance, anyone?
Those readers of a certain age remember when introversion was a desired trait among students. The assignments – copying work from the board, solving math problems, memorizing facts, writing compositions – favored students who could sit quietly and be self-sufficient in their own thought world. Students who had to move about and talk to someone during class often found themselves missing recess or wearing the dunce cap on a corner stool. “Turn and share” hasn’t always been a teaching strategy. The active, sensory-stimulating classroom is a relatively new practice. Through no fault of their own, introverted students have become less fashionable – and are often deemed less-capable – than their peers.
Extroversion and Introversion in the Classroom
Think about your classroom. Are there opportunities for introverted students and extroverted students to succeed? Here are some things to consider.
Classroom Environment. Are there locations in the classroom that offer different degrees of stimulation? Are students free to move to those areas when needed? Overstimulation is a big problem for many introverts. We usually think of isolation as punishment, but for many introverted students it can be a welcome respite from a hectic learning environment. A recent classroom trend has been the introduction of bouncing ball seating for students. Students sit on oversized beach balls, bouncing gently and shuffling their feet while learning at their desks. Other schools have added bicycle pedals under student desks to “work out the wiggles.” While this is great for action-oriented extroverts, it can be a nightmare for the introverts who prefer a less stimulating environment. Once again, it’s all about choice and access.
Student Performance. If performance-based assignments are used, are provisions made for both introverted and extroverted students? Acting-out scenes in history class can be fun, but some of your students won’t be comfortable with that. Those students could probably display their in-depth knowledge by writing a poem, drawing a map, or creating an electronic presentation.
Using Introverts’ Strengths. Are you taking advantage of your introverted students’ abilities? Several years ago I was responsible for guiding a drama class through the production of the school play. (Admittedly, I was a terrible choice for the job. I hadn't been in a school play since elementary school, much less directed one.) A young man in my drama class nervously approached me one day. “Mr. Kyker, I want to be the curtain puller. I can also move the set pieces, organize the costumes, and keep track of the scripts.” Of course, what he was telling me was that he didn’t want to be in the play. I told him that I didn’t need a curtain puller, but I sure could use an assistant director. He was my right-hand man for the next month, and he really enjoyed his involvement in the play.
For three years I taught a popular digital photography class in middle school. As you can imagine, about 90% of my students were introverts. One of my more introverted students was a real innovator. He developed several creative photography techniques and continuously explored functions of the software that I didn’t have time to teach. He was also very adept at writing down the step-by-step process to achieve his masterful results. Often, he’d send me these “Photoshop recipes” via e-mail and I would post them on our class web-site. The only credit he wanted was his first name – Jackson – in a tiny font at the bottom of the page. Within a few weeks, the Jackson Guides became a mainstay of our class, and none of the students had any idea where I got them! Occasionally, a student would say, “We need a Jackson Guide for this!” I would make quick eye contact with Jackson and ten minutes later a new Jackson Guide would be in my email inbox.
Elective Classes. Administrators, are you offering electives that appeal to introverted students? Let’s revisit our introvert’s statement: I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. Drawing/painting, ceramics/sculpture, photography, computer skills, creative writing and weightlifting are a few electives that introverts will find appealing.
Stretching the Comfort Zone
It’s okay to gently stretch the comfort zones of your introverted students. Realistically, very few successful adults will be able to live rewarding lives in an exclusively introverted setting. As with any new, uncomfortable experience, you want to provide a low-stakes, high-success opportunity.
My digital photography students – almost all introverts – composed a multimedia essay for their final projects. Each student read a simple script as their photos and videos were displayed. They all wanted to record the script and embed it into the video, but I insisted on a “live” reading. Of course, they were reading from notecards. The lights were dimmed. And all eyes were on the screen, not the student. Everyone passed, and nobody passed out!
My drama assistant director stood on-stage as an “extra” in one play performance. That was his idea. He didn’t want a line to speak, and he didn’t want to bow onstage at the end of the performance. He wanted to “wade in the water,” and I was proud of him for taking that step. You can probably think of many ways to gently encourage your introverted students to take small, safe steps into the spotlight.
It is possible for teachers to push too hard when engaging introverted students. Efforts to bring introverted students “out of their shells” can easily descend into cajoling, nagging, or even shaming. As a high school student I was told that keeping ideas to myself was selfish, because the group could benefit from my insights in a class discussion. That didn’t help. I didn’t feel selfish. I simply wasn’t willing to make the presumptive jump that my ideas would work for someone else. With 40 years to think about it, I probably could have contributed more. But we learn as we grow.
Years later, after my first textbook was published, I was asked to speak to local educational groups. Initially I rejected invitations, not because of shyness (fear), but because I really didn’t feel like I had anything to say. Fortunately my co-author, an extrovert, welcomed the chance to work with other teachers and share our ideas. He and I spoke at several dozen conferences over the next 14 years, and I eventually learned to enjoy it. Still, the keyboard is much more comfortable than the podium.
In just about every classroom situation there are ways for introverts to participate. Rather than ask for volunteers (which will almost always be extroverts) quietly ask an introverted student if he or she would like to perform these roles. Introverts are very observant by nature, and would love to be the class note-taker, or the arranger of classroom materials. Rather than speak before the entire group, an introverted student would enjoy guiding one or two new students around campus, tutoring younger students in basic skills, or explaining the homework assignments to students who have been absent. When I worked as an elementary library media specialist, my best “reading buddies” (5th graders reading with 2nd graders) were introverts.
Here’s what introverts need to hear: it’s okay to contribute. We won’t think you’re trying to draw attention to yourself. You’ll actually be helping. Nobody’s forcing you, but when you get ready, we’d like your input.
Realize also that when grouping students, it’s desirable to put introverts and extroverts together. They need each other. Introverts need extroverts to help them move to the next task. Extroverts need introverts to slow the process down and evaluate all the options. This brings balance to the group. A group of extroverts will generate a quick result that may have a fatal flaw. A group of introverts will still be thinking about the first option at the end of the school day.
Who are you?
Finally, as a teacher, it is important for you to recognize and understand your place on the introversion/extroversion continuum. As teachers, we often have a tendency to prefer our own style, and expect our students to follow that lead. If you are an introverted teacher – and there are a lot of us out there – make sure you are providing appropriate tasks, strategies, and opportunities for your extroverted students. It’s not a better-worse dichotomy. The goal is to create a classroom where all students can participate, thrive, and learn.
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1. "The Myers & Briggs Foundation - Extraversion or Introversion." The Myers & Briggs Foundation - Extraversion or Introversion. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.
3. Cain, Susan. "Shy, Introverted, Both, or Neither (and Why Does It Matter)?" Quiet Revolution Are You Shy Introverted Both or Neither and Why Does It Matter Comments. N.p., 05 Oct. 2015. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.
Also: Sakurai, Carmen. "24 Signs You’re An Introvert- Not Shy." Lifehack RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
“You just wait – I’m calling your mother!”
How many of us have uttered that phrase, or something like it, in our teaching careers? I admit, early in my career I used that tool to get the attention of a misbehaving student. Of course, once the threat is made, we must follow-through. Most teachers don’t like to call parents about their disruptive children. We don’t like to be the bearers of bad news. We don’t want another conflict (this time, with an adult.) We don’t want to debate the parent about the merits of their child. We just want the behavior corrected, and it’s easier just to write a referral.
But carefully planned and properly executed, a simple five-minute parent phone call can correct misbehavior, avert more serious disciplinary action, and gain an important ally – the parent – in the effort to create a productive learning environment.
Like most good teachers, you like to begin class as soon as the tardy bell rings. But the last three days a student has dashed into your 6th grade class at the last second, laughing and dramatically huffing-and-puffing before slamming his books on his desk. The students laugh (because it is funny, in a pitiful sort of way) and it takes at least three or four minutes to get the class back on track. The first time it happened, you gave the student a warning. Because you’re so nice, you gave him a second warning that obviously didn’t improve the behavior. So now, it’s time to call the parents.
Before the Call
Here are some things to think about before making the phone call. First, the parent phone call is an important early step in most school discipline plans. Sure, there are some misbehaviors that demand an immediate office referral. But for most minor infractions (classroom disruption, tardiness, etc.) the discipline plan must be followed. Depending on your school’s discipline plan, you may need to issue a warning, call the parent, and host an after-class detention before sending the student to an administrator.
Secondly, the parent phone call is a warning shot – one the parents really deserve. The misbehavior in the scenario above has been going on for three days, but we really can’t expect the parent to know about it unless we tell them. The parent phone call is a sign of good faith on the part of the teacher. It shows the parent that the teacher believes that the student is really a good kid making some bad choices. Most parents appreciate the opportunity to correct the problem before the school starts a file folder on their child.
Finally, get a paper and pencil ready. Write down the important things you need to tell the parent. And be prepared to take notes. If the phone call becomes contentious, you may need to write verbatim what the parent says. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but we still need to be prepared.
Making the Call
Now, we’re ready to make our parent phone call!
Call at the right time. When I need to make a parent call, I try to call around 7 PM – after supper. I never call parents at work. Many parents aren’t supposed to take phone calls at work, and those calls are often brief and unproductive. Instead, wait until after supper, when the family is relaxed.
Some teachers call from school, so as not to use their personal phone numbers. That’s certainly understandable, and you want to be comfortable calling. However, in 30 years of teaching I have never had a problem with a parent call made from my home or cell phone.
Introductions. When you’ve got the parent on the phone, make sure to clearly say your name, and your association with the student.
“Hello, this is Mr. Jones, Billy’s math teacher at Smithfield Middle School.”
You want to make sure that the parent knows exactly to whom they are talking so there’s no confusion. You’re calling from an unfamiliar phone number, and most parents will assume it’s a sales call.
Asking for help. I always begin the phone call by asking the parent for help.
“Mr. Jackson, I’m calling to see if you can help me with an issue that I’m having in the classroom.”
This request puts the focus on the classroom instead of the student. You are also establishing the parent as someone who has control over the situation.
Describing your goal. At this point, you want the parent to be able to visualize a successful classroom.
“It’s really important that we start class on time. We have a lot to learn in math class, and we need every minute.”
Once again, we’re not focused on the misbehaving student, but the needs of all of the students.
Now, for the problem. Here’s you describe what’s happening, and the first word is very, very important.
“Unfortunately, Billy’s behaving in a way that makes starting class on time difficult.”
By saying, “unfortunately” you’re letting the parent know that you’ve thought about the problem. You’ve considered it. And it’s just sad.
Explanation. In two or three sentences, elaborate on the misbehavior. Stick to the facts. Stay away from emotions. Make sure to include the previous steps you’ve taken to correct the behavior.
“For the past three days, Billy has run into the classroom at the last second, and purposefully distracted the class with his behavior. We all run a little late occasionally. But instead of entering the room quietly, Billy makes a lot of noise, and slams his books on his desk. I’ve warned him about this twice, but he’s ignoring my warnings.”
Call to action. Now it’s time to make a specific request.
“I’m hoping you can talk to Billy tonight about this behavior, and let him know what your expectations are. I’d really like to get this taken care of, so that the class isn’t distracted again.”
Say something nice. At this point, the parent has received an embarrassing report from the teacher. It’s important pull the phone call back into win-win territory. Think of something – anything – you can say to complement the student.
“You know, Billy has a lot of personality, and he’s really a fun guy. I look forward to his contributions to my class. If we can just get this situation turned-around, I’m sure he will be a great student.”
You don’t want to create a feeling of failure or hopelessness for the parent.
Boundaries and Consequences. This is where the “warning shot” that I wrote about earlier comes into play. Let the parent know that the situation is serious, and you plan to continue the discipline process until the problem is solved.
“I do need to let you know that Billy is on the second step of the school discipline plan. Step one was the warning I gave him. This phone call to you is step two. If the misbehavior isn’t corrected, then we have to move to step three, an office referral.”
Parental Input. Almost all class disruptions are based on lack of self-control, a need for attention, or basic adolescent silliness. But sometimes, something is happening in the child’s life that explains the misbehavior. (Granted, that’s not an excuse, but it’s something to consider.) So near the end of the call I ask the parent for their input.
“Can you think of any reason that Billy might be acting out this way?”
Typically, there are no mitigating factors. But sometimes the parent will share important information. “Well, now that you mention it, his little sister has been in the hospital the last two weeks, and I guess we’ve been ignoring Billy.” Billy’s classroom disruptions can now be seen from a different perspective. It’s still important for Billy to improve his behavior. But now you’re able to approach the situation with the sensitivity it deserves.
Ending on a Positive Note. Before ending the phone call, make sure to thank the parent, and tell them how much you appreciate their willingness to help.
Keep a written log of all parent phone calls. Note the date and time. Include your notes, and any important information about the phone call. This first parent phone call may be the last one you need to make. Or it may be the first step in a protracted disciplinary issue. Your documentation may be critical in a long-term behavior improvement plan.
At this point you may be thinking, “This isn’t a conversation; it’s a speech!” And for the most part, you would be correct. The parent phone call isn’t a substitution for the parent conference. Phone calls are all about communicating information to parents. More serious issues with long-term implications deserve a face-to-face conference with all parties in attendance.
Finally, does the parent phone call always solve the discipline problem? No, not always. I would estimate that about 95% of the time there is improvement in behavior after the parent phone call, and most of the time the problem disappears completely. But sure, sometimes the misbehavior continues. At that point, you continue the discipline plan to the next level. You can be satisfied that you’ve followed the school discipline plan and given the parents the chance to correct a small problem before it becomes as big one.
Minor discipline issues are bound to happen in any classroom. Enlisting the help of the parent is often productive in correcting that behavior. Follow the steps in this posting, and expect positive results!
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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